We had a moment there – it came and went. But for like half a second, it seemed like things could go so well…
Last December, Carmen Montano became the 18th Mayor of Milpitas. Garry Barbadillo, in the course of campaigning for his City Councilmember seat, recalled a time when the Milpitas City Council routinely voted 5-0. In other words, everything they passed, they passed unanimously. I liked the message. It pointed to an age of solidarity, of common sense, of putting the people’s business before the City’s business.
That age is not the one we’re living in.
Earlier this year, the new Council voted 3-2 to discontinue City Manager Steve McHarris’s contract. Montano, Barbadillo, and Vice Mayor Evelyn Chua voted Yes; Councilmembers Hon Lien and Anthony Phan voted No. Nobody had campaigned on a promise of removing Steve McHarris. More pertinently, there was no chorus among the voting public calling for his removal. McHarris, who began work midway through former Mayor Rich Tran’s three terms after serving for a time as the Interim City Manager, seemed – at least per a widespread public perception – to be exactly what the City needed: a steady, sober, dutiful hand.
But now he’s gone – or slated to go home come June.
As such, McHarris has begun exploring a lawsuit against the City of Milpitas. In response, City Attorney Michael Mutalipassi prepared a document outlining the City’s legal strategy against him. Mutalipassi emailed the paperwork to the City Council. One of the City Councilmembers leaked the document to McHarris himself, who turned it over to his own attorney. McHarris’s lawyer, per his own legal and professional obligations, had to let Mutalipassi know what had taken place.
Now Mutalipassi is at odds with the leaker. A City press release from last week reported the leak, noting that the City Council had voted to investigate what had happened, and forward the results to the Santa Clara County Grand Jury.
Things are bad.
From Mutalipassi’s point of view, the leak was tantamount to treason: a public official going against the City’s very interests by aiding an opponent of the City. If only it were that simple. The truth is, the opponent is himself the active City Manager.
So what we have here is a situation where the City Attorney is against at least one member of the City Council, while the City itself is being sued by its own City Manager, who himself is aligned with at least one Councilmember, and against the majority of the City Council, which is itself in a state of entrenched division. One can stage a Milpitas version of “Reservoir Dogs” wherein we all obsess about who the leaker is, or one can take a wider, more systemic view, and see that our City Hall is in a state of civil war.
To wit: Is the leaker really against “the City” when they’re helping the City Manager? Likewise, is the City Manager’s validity really to be questioned just because a majority of the Council doesn’t like him? Who’s in the right here? More specifically, what did McHarris do to merit losing his job (the public has received no answer on that one, since the decision around his contract took place in Closed Session)?
Moreover, did the leaker have a duty of confidentiality equal to the City Attorney’s? It’s a question for the Grand Jury to answer, but to my understanding, since the leaker was the equivalent of the attorney’s client, the leaker wasn’t required to keep the info under lock and key like the attorney himself. In any case, look to the entrenched division again: it stands to reason that the leaker has sympathy for the City Manager. That in mind, the leaker’s status as the City Attorney’s “client” is a matter of unfortunate happenstance.
I’m not taking sides; I’m trying to shed light: The City of Milpitas would have the People believe that all is good in the hood but for one bad actor (or actress). As though the discovery and punishment of the leaker will be sufficient for returning order to the Kingdom. But the Kingdom, at its cornfield roots, seems to be way out of order. The Council’s divided on the Manager. The Manager’s furious at the House. The House has sprung a leak, but the leaker happens to be an appointee of the People.
Whose judgment do we trust? Whose hands are on the wheel?
Last year, with my dependable humility, I advised the City Council to avoid this poison. It’s tempting to say at this juncture that they didn’t listen. But it’s not them.
It’s the House.
It’s the System. Politics itself. Its way of dividing, its way of pitting people against one another while inciting unkempt passions and ire. Dare I say that Democracy Itself is the problem? Well, when the ability to engage in good faith argument and debate gets supplanted by vitriolic gridlock and open-ended inertia – then, sure, that’s one way of putting it (and we’re not only seeing it locally).
Not long ago, a recent McHarris predecessor, Tom Williams, resigned amid a crisis. He, too, sued the City of Milpitas. It went on forever. The people’s business took a backseat to the business of the House. In the end, though he’d gone after $1,000,000, Tom Williams took home only $1,372.
Milpitas faces an array of crises: Our unhoused have endured an endless winter of rain. Our housing continuously evades the sheer concept of affordability. Storefronts remain shuttered due to the pandemic. The climate’s unstable. Our future’s uncertain.
I of course wish Steve McHarris all the best. As well as all the other players on the board. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that in Milpitas, and perhaps in America itself, the game is rigged. As for the House?
It always wins.